The Substrate
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The Substrate

On Fiction & Neuralink

But first, a hot take: is it just me, or does Neuralink’s robot sort of look like its logo?


Originally in the realm of fiction, Neuralink is finally materializing into the real. The company began its public journey as a story: a dream dreamt up by Elon in his Fremont dream factory and chronicled by the fabulously talented Tim Urban. Now, the company has real technology with real constraints because, unlike in the world of fiction, degrees of freedom in reality are limited.

Neuralink was announced through loudspeakers with a ~35,000 word blog post on Wait But Why telling a marvelous story about the imperiled and soon-to-be-saved future of humanity. As the article puts it, artificial intelligence threatens the obsolescence of Homo sapiens, but we can secure our significance and safety by integrating biological intelligence and artificial intelligence. This, it explains, was the vision behind Elon Musk’s new endeavor: a neurotechnology company.

It wasn’t just the linguistic content. Tim Urban’s distinctive style — of which I’m a big fan — incorporates many cartoons, like the now-infamous brain in a wizard hat. In addition to the distant-future hypotheticals, these cartoons also added to the feeling of fiction, or at the very least of being far-fetched.

Brain in a wizard hat. Credits: Wait But Why.

Fiction is wonderful. It inspires, it draws up strong emotions, and I would argue it has its own Platonic reality — but it’s also inherently hallucinatory.

Whereas an inherently fictional endeavor like a film will stay fictional, a real endeavor like a company that begins with fiction must obviously become real in order to succeed. If we look at the three “publicity” data points for Neuralink, we have:

1) Wait But Why article. Lays out a hypothetical vision of the future and verges into science fiction territory; Neuralink is the ultimate solution to the “problem” of biology.

2) Summer 2019 event. Shows off ambitious technology that can be implanted in multiple cortical locations simultaneously. Highlights future applications of novel technology in some detail. Keynote discussion on AI symbiosis & existential threat mitigation (including bandwidth argument), and therapeutic applications are secondary to the storytelling.

3) Summer 2020 event. Demos a scaled back device. Keynote immediately focuses on therapies. Product sloganeering: Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires.

The progression from the original 2017 article to the Summer 2020 event is distinctly an arc of reification: at each point, the degrees of freedom have reduced (which surely reflects a more continuous degrees of freedom reduction during day to day operations). This isn’t bad; it was inevitable, because any real entity that starts as fiction has to become real, or cease to be. Neuralink is maturing.

Though perhaps an abstract observation, I think it has real significance for the field. When Neuralink was more fictional, it was like a Schrödinger’s pig: it was and it wasn’t; it could be anything and everything. The towering stature of Elon and the implicit perception of Neuralink as infinite (vis a vis its fiction status) has impacted the investment climate in neurotechnology. Why invest in a brain technology when Elon’s already done it?

Often, when learning about a field from the outside, (royal) we look for core guideposts to align ourselves to. When Neuralink lived as fiction, its presence could expand to an enormous size and become the predominant aligning guidepost for the neuro-naïve (not meant as a knock on people; myself included, most people are naïve about most things, a fact largely attributable to the size of the set of things). As everyone in neurotechnology knows, the field is much larger than Neuralink. As Neuralink manifests into the real out of the fictitious, people outside of the field will begin to understand that, too.

This will play to the advantage of other commercial and academic endeavors in neurotechnology. Neuralink has not developed the panacea of neural interfacing, as neurotech Twitter has been eager to kvetch about. They have (according to neural engineers I trust) done difficult integration engineering, and made a cool demo, and have a tough road forward of technical and clinical validation.

By becoming real, it becomes clear that Neuralink is certain things (effective systems integrators, adept at design and probably user experience, advancing a product forward) and isn’t (yet?) others (a near-term solution to major depression, vision impairment, neurodegenerative disorders, language decoding, and so on).

As someone formerly on the venture capital side of things and now on the storytelling & strategy side, my advice is this: use this to your advantage. When an investor asks you about Neuralink, tell the story of its adoption of constraint and focus. You, too, have chosen constraint and focus, and it’s different from Neuralink’s. You have space for your story, and they for theirs.

To some extent, every business begins a fiction. Some of us start with slides, and some of us start with small books. As reality inevitably takes over and the degrees of freedom shrink, what grows are the specificity and differentiability of the businesses—therein lies competition, and therein lies an industry.



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